Even hate speech has First Amendment rights

The Westboro Baptist Church made headlines again Friday when members protested near the military funeral service of Pfc. Nathan Tyler Davis in Yucaipa, Calif., claiming that God is killing members of the military in retaliation against America’s tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

Christina Ellis | Summer Trojan

WBC has had more than 48,000 similar demonstrations since June 1991 and the church seems in no hurry to call it quits. WBC’s protests include “daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth,” according to the church’s website.  Church members also carry signs that read “God Hates F-gs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “America is Doomed” — just to name a few.

Many have argued that WBC protests should be banned or at the very least controlled, claiming the protests invade the privacy of the funerals and disrespect the memory of the fallen soldiers.

Yet as homophobic and disrespectful as the WBC protests might seem, the protesters — like everyone else — are entitled to their First Amendment right of free speech, and it’s unconstitutional for anyone to try to take that right away simply because they don’t agree with what the church has to say. In fact, the Supreme Court upheld the protection of the protesters’ right to the First Amendment in the Snyders vs. Phelps case earlier this spring.

Supreme Court rulings aside, this matter is not a mere concern of constitutionality.  It also sheds light on issues of hatred, prompting many questions: Where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?  When does hate speech become a hate crime?

According to popular discourse, hate speech targets a person or group because of gender, religion, race or sexual orientation, whereas hate crimes go a step further, using violence rather than words to attack.

There is no doubt that the WBC protestors are perpetrators of hate speech; they are directly attacking the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and military communities with their offensive slurs. The question now is whether this hate speech will escalate into violence.

Many in opposition to the WBC would argue that though the battle is currently non-violent, hate speech essentially serves as the gateway to hate crimes. And yet, as tempting as it might be to silence the WBC to avoid further conflict, opponents simply cannot adopt a precautionary logic and sacrifice the right of freedom of speech to do so.

There is no better middle ground than the center of the issue: speech. What better way to combat hate speech than to fire back with words and drown out the voices of the opposition? The only way this issue will avoid violence and further conflict is if people accept that WBC is entitled to say what they want — and that the opposition can make the best of their rights too.

In light of this, various veteran’s groups and others opposed to the WBC have attended funerals to create a wall around the WBC members, essentially toning down the discourse through peaceful means.

WBC spreads a hateful message, but its hate speech does not need to escalate into hate crimes — the process is not a given.  WBC is entitled to free speech, but so is everyone else.  Perhaps it’s time for the WBC’s opposition to fight fire with fire: words with words. At its core, this issue comes down to speech rights.  As it happens, speech can be the problem, but also the most effective solution.


C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication and online editor for the Summer Trojan.

5 replies
  1. Jack
    Jack says:

    Hate speech is an incredibly useful social control and should not be made illegal. Rather it shows us where the socially negligent and out right crazy people are, so that they can be safely avoided. At the same time, they get to vent as opposed to being herded underground, where they can hide and fester until their cause goes from “shout really loud” to “blow up the things we don’t like”.

    If it does escalate to violence, we know which doors to knock on.

  2. cb
    cb says:

    Westboro Baptist Church spreads its hate through picketing in our streets, provoking attacks, with abusive language and flag desecration, attempting to create a confrontation. This is not a church, this is a hate group. This is not about protesting, freedom, or God. They are in it for the money and the press; this is a family law firm. They are not a “church.” It is a scam. They go after anything that can get them in the news. This is a family of lawyers!

  3. tony
    tony says:

    Drowning out someones speech is not right either. By doing so you are not only denying the WBC their right to speak but you are denying those how may be interested in hearing what they have to say. why dont you people stop being so thin skinned . its pathetic.

    • Mike
      Mike says:

      I understand where you’re coming from but try and imagine yourself as a family member of a slain service member. No one wants to hear the garbage that comes out of these hatemongerers’ mouths so by drowning out their voices, don’t see it as covering their speech, but protecting others from it.

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